I was watching Westworld, and it struck me how, like the robots, we’re all subject to our own particular programming, and we’re all trapped in some kind of narrative, leading lives of torment or quiet desperation. The narrative has got us in its grip, and once it has taken hold it is so hard to fight against. Telling the truth, or supplying facts, or whatever else you try to do won’t have an impact on people who are being driven by the power of narrative, no matter how false.
I didn’t post anything about the US election in the run-up, and there’s not much need in the aftermath. What have now become the usual observations apply. Although they’ve now been discredited (UK General Election 2015) and discredited again (Brexit 2016), people were still giving too much credence to opinion polls. I visited my placeholder Facebook page earlier, and there was a promoted link to Nate Silver’s page. Hilarious! As John Oliver’s show might ask: FiveThirtyEight.com – how is this still a thing?
Then there’s the Twitter, which the day after the election was a pathetic shambles of self-pitying complaint. One couldn’t help but wonder, what if Twitter had been around in 1979 for Thatcher (my Vietnam), or in 1980 for Reagan? What would Twitter have made of Dan fucking Quayle? Or Nixon, when he was illegally bombing Cambodia and Laos? As everybody knows by now, Twitter is an echo chamber. There was surely nothing more useless or pointless than the endlessly repeated exhortations to VOTE! Who’s reading those tweets, exactly? Yeah, your followers, who are people who think like you and tweet the same kind of things as you.
You couldn’t fight Trump on Twitter. We’ve known since 1996 that trying to win an online argument is a pointless waste of time. And as for the bulk of Trump’s supporters, those white Middle Americans convinced that Sharia Law is just around the corner, they’re not on Twitter. Twitter’s user base is notoriously static and restricted to a subset of the chattering classes.
Crowing online about how Beyoncé and Jay-Z, or Bruce, or Alec Baldwin were endorsing Hilary while Trump could only manage Scott Baio is to massively miss the point that those ‘deplorable’ Red State people feel nothing but contempt and resentment towards those metropolitan sophisticates squeezed up against the East and West coast. The more you parade your celebrity endorsers in front of them, the more they’re going to vote against you.
Anyway, even though the election season was ridiculously long and tedious, there was never going to be enough time, or enough tweets, or enough celebrities, to undo the damage that has been done – over years – by the likes of Fox News. On the one hand, the strident outrage of paid-to-have-opinions pundits; on the other, the whisperers… The eight years of economic pain since 2008; the eight years of naked racism directed towards Obama; the fifteen years of anti-muslim rhetoric since September 2001; the 35 years of steadily declining middle class incomes since the end of the Keynsian post-war consensus.
There’s a narrative out there. It’s in the heart of Brexitland, it’s in Le Pen’s France, and it’s in those Red States, of which there are increasing numbers. The narrative takes the undeniable evidence of people’s blighted economic fortunes, ever-increasing burden of debt, lack of options, and it whispers (sometimes shouts) the blame. These people, with their alien religion, want to introduce their Sharia Law, here, in deepest Wisconsin. Or these other people, who want to stop the police from doing their job. Or these people who are stealing American jobs. Or these others, who want to take away your guns, or your freedom to say whatever the hell you want: all of them are collectively to blame for the shitty way you feel, for the way you feel uncomfortable, or embarrassed, for holding your opinions.
We can’t help it: none of us are immune to the power of narrative. We’re all just helpless robots, programmed to respond. The neoliberal consensus has been programming us all since the 70s, but since 2008 they’ve gradually lost control of the narrative. The banks were blatantly, obviously to blame for the financial crash. But the working classes were blatantly, obviously made to pay the cost. This injustice created a whirling, white-hot vortex of resentment and anger which made people receptive to the quiet comfort of an alternative narrative in which blame was apportioned. So people have followed their programming to its logical conclusion: first Brexit; and now Trump, the rampaging monster from America’s id. Trump is the robot uprising, the one we’re waiting for in Westworld.